Homeless Crisis Grows While Canada Prospers
Homeless Crisis Grows While Canada Prospers
The economy is strong, provinces run budget surpluses, yet we turn our backs on the destitute
by Daphne Bramham; April 19, 2008 - Vancouver Sun
Not since the Great Depression have so many Canadians been homeless or at risk of losing the roofs over their heads. But what makes the homeless crisis different from the 1930s is that this is not the result of a natural disaster. It's the result of a perfect storm of failed government policies.
You see homeless people everywhere, not just in downtown Vancouver. Some sit quietly with their hands outstretched. Others prowl a favourite corner begging for spare change. Some huddle with their dirty blankets, cardboard and plastic in abandoned doorways and under bridges.
But there are others that you'll never see because they stay with different friends for periods of time or spend a night now and again with family members. Some hold down jobs and take their kids to school every day. Others have spent a lifetime working only to find themselves homeless in their 60s, 70s and 80s.
Even conservative estimates suggest that between 200,000 and 300,000 Canadians sleep in the streets, emergency shelters or transitional housing, or sofa-surf each night. The B.C. government estimates there are 5,500 homeless British Columbians, but the opposition New Democrats say it's likely at least double that.
The most shocking number comes from the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addictions. Its estimate of 11,750 British Columbians who are "absolutely homeless" accounts only for those with severe addictions and/or mental illness. Its report -- commissioned by the B.C. government and completed in October -- suggests that there are an additional 18,759 people with addictions and/or mental illness at imminent risk of homelessness.
Every day between 1.7 million and 2.7 million Canadians go to work and worry that if they were to miss their next paycheque, they and their families would be on the street. That's what the Toronto-based Wellesley Institute has extrapolated from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. data on housing affordability.
In that same report, the institute pointed out that of all the provinces, B.C. spends the least on housing -- a measly $41 per person compared to the national average of $109.
From the 1950s up until the early 1990s, the federal government provided significant funds to build affordable and subsidized housing. In 1982, for example, Ottawa paid for 20,450 non-profit and co-op housings units. That accounted for one in every six homes built that year.
Since then, Canada has become the only developed country in the world that has neither a national housing plan or a national mental health strategy.
In 1993, even though [former Prime Minister] Jean Chretien had campaigned on a promise of restoring the national housing program, his Liberal government cancelled all funding for affordable housing. Two years later, only 1,000 units of affordable housing were built in the entire country.
The United Nations' committee on economic, social and cultural rights said in 1998 that Canada's failure to provide decent, affordable housing had "exacerbated homelessness among vulnerable groups during a time of strong economic growth and increasing affluence."
In 2006, 4,393 social housing units were built nationwide, a fifth of what had been built a quarter of a century earlier when Canada had 10 million fewer people.
Housing is not a priority in Ottawa. In February, Conservative Housing Minister Monte Solberg declined an invitation to the first meeting of provincial housing ministers held in nearly three years.
The provincial ministers, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and literally thousands of non-profit organizations that provide homeless services are desperate to know what Solberg and the Conservatives have planned, since funding for all federal housing programs ends in 2009.
A press release issued on the eve of that meeting said Solberg believes housing is "a shared challenge" for all levels of government, the private sector and community organizations.
"The best social safety net is a combination of relevant [skills], a good job and strong families," Solberg was quoted as saying.
But unlike in the Depression when nearly a third of Canadians were unemployed, provinces were near bankruptcy and Canada itself barely solvent, now the federal government and many provinces run budget surpluses. Canada's growth in gross domestic product is one of the highest in the world; the unemployment rate is among the lowest as are interest rates.
But the growing homeless crisis and the chaos on urban streets isn't only Ottawa's fault. Provincial governments contributed by shutting down 19th-century insane asylums, de-institutionalizing the mentally ill, without corresponding investments in alternative housing and services, and turning police into front-line medical-health workers.
Vancouver police Det. Fiona Wilson-Bates's recent study indicated that one in three calls answered by police involves someone with a mental illness. Over a year, that's the equivalent of 90 officers working full-time at an annual cost of $9 million.
While the B.C. government was moving people out of Riverview, it was also spending hundreds of millions of dollars building Expo '86. By July 1986, more than 500 people had been evicted from their affordable accommodation in single-occupancy rooms to make room for the 20 million visitors who visited the 5 1/2-month fair.
The fair was a raging success and Vancouver's Manhattanization was underway. The massive redevelopment began at the vacated fair site that the province sold to Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing for a mere $125 million. It now stretches to the fringes of the Downtown Eastside.
Vancouver now consistently ranks as one of the most livable cities in the world, driving housing demand and prices to the point that it is now the most expensive city in Canada.
The city does demand that developers set aside land for social housing, but there has been little money available to build it.
In Metro Vancouver, we see homeless people every day. We see them so frequently that Val MacDonald of the Seniors Housing Services Society says, "They're like the wart on the end of our nose that we don't want to see."
Mostly we've filed them away as mentally ill, drug-addicted or lazy -- society's castaways, part of life's flotsam and jetsam.
Of course, it's easier that way because the really frightening thing about homelessness is that some of the people with no roofs over their heads are an awful lot like you and me.
HOMELESS BY THE NUMBERS
- Nearly one in seven users of homeless shelters is a child, according to the National Homeless Initiative.
- Close to one in three of Canada's more than 150,000 homeless is aged 16 to 24, according to the organization Raising the Roof.
- The number of homeless seniors in Metro Vancouver nearly tripled between 2002 and 2005.
- Forty-nine per cent of Canadians surveyed by Environics in 2006 said they were one or two paycheques away from poverty.
- Based on an estimate of 150,000 homeless, Canadians spend between $4.5- and $6 billion annually on emergency shelters, health care, social services and poverty-related crime.
- Calgary's number of homeless people grew by 740 per cent between 1994 and 2006.
- The median net worth of the poorest 10 per cent of Canadians fell by nearly $7,500 between 1984 and 2005, while the net worth of the richest 10 per cent increased by $659,000, according to a Statistics Canada report in December 2006.
- Between 1996 and 2001, total before-tax income of the bottom 40 per cent of Canadian families has fallen from 15 per cent to 14 per cent, while their share of taxes paid has risen from 5.5 per cent to 6.3 per cent, according to researcher fellow Judith Maxwell at the Canadian Policy Research Networks.
- In 2001, only 39 per cent of unemployed Canadians were eligible for welfare, according to the 2006 report of the United Nations committee on economic, social and cultural rights.